Monday, March 2, 2009

Exegesis of Hebrews 2:16

Rounds, Nelson. “Exegesis of Hebrews II, 16.” Methodist Review 35 (1853): 301-04.

Strong, James. “Meaning of ἐπιλαμάνεται in Hebrews ii, 16.” Methodist Review 35 (1853): 453-55.

These two brief articles offer an exegesis of Hebrews 2:16 which reads Οὐ γὰρ δήπου ἀγγέλων ἐπιλαμβάνεται, ἀλλὰ σπέρματος Ἀβραὰμ ἐπιλαμβάνεται.

Rounds notes that there are two possible meanings to the word ἐπιλαμβάνεται: 1) to take upon oneself or assume – Christ assumed human nature, not angelic; 2) to succor or save – Christ saved humans, not angels.

Rounds opts for the first option. He gives four reasons for this opinion: 1) the middle verb ἐπιλαμβάνεται in the NT means “to take,” but the purpose must be determined by the context – see Matt 14:31; Acts 21:33; 1 Tim 6:12, 19 – the last references have a reflexive meaning which is the characteristic meaning of the verb in the middle form; 2) to take the verb to mean “to save” obscures the main point of the chapter. Chapter 1 is devoted to the divine nature, and chapter 2 to the human nature of Christ. There must be an identity between the Savior and the saved: “the sanctifier and the sanctified” are one; 3) the author of Hebrews is talking about the holy angels, not the fallen ones. To say that Christ did not come to save the holy angels is a truism that hardly needs to be stated, but to say that Christ did not assume an angelic nature is to make an important theological point; 4) Christ did not come to “save” only the children of Abraham, but all humanity. But when ἐπιλαμβάνεται is understood to mean “assume” it makes perfectly good sense that Christ not only came to take on human nature, but that he was also of the seed of Abraham, that is, one of Abraham’s descendants.

James Strong disputes Rounds’ view: 1) the reflexive force does not belong to the verb in the NT, nor does classical usage distinguish between the active and middle voices. The meaning to take hold of to render assistance is common in the NT – see Luke 14:4; 2) ἐπιλαμβάνεται cannot have a historical present sense; the present tense clearly describes a continuous event extending to the time of the writing; 3) If ἐπιλαμβάνεται is construed as “assume” then one must supply an ellipsis before ἀγγέλων and σπέρματος, providing a word such as τὴν μορφήν or φύσιν – it would be an omission of a key word that would give sense to the passage. Nor can the genitives depend upon the verb in a transitive sense. The angels do not have to be “good” angels; the author is merely referencing the angels as an order of being, regardless of moral character. Likewise, “seed of Abraham” only refers to humanity in general to which the Jews belonged; 4) the scope of the argument requires the sense of “relieving” and not “assuming.” Rounds is correct that chapter two deals with the human nature of Christ. This is stated clearly in verses 14 and 15. Verse 16, which is introduced by γὰρ, gives the principle reason for this identification. Christ identified with humanity in order to save them. If the verb is construed as “assume” it hardly gives a reason for identifying with them, but merely repeats the same idea. Likewise, verse 17 draws the conclusion from 16; it is not merely a rehashing of the same thought.

Strong’s last two grammatical points seems to me to make it decisive that ἐπιλαμβάνεται must mean “to aid, succor, give help to.”


  1. Have you read Micheal E. Gudorf's argument on this passage? He suggests the passage may be read something along the lines of (I don't have his article in front of me so this may be loose) . . . "For the fear of death does not take hold of angels, but it takes hold of the seed of Abraham." You can find the article (Through a Classical Lens:Hebrews 2:16)in JBL from 2000 I believe.

  2. I have the article, but I have not read it yet.

  3. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it as a fellow Hebrewsphile.

  4. OK, I'll see if I can get to it sometime before the end of the year. I've got some other things that are more pressing on me at the moment.

    By the way, shouldn't that be "Hebraiousphile"? :-)